A Living Testament?

by Joel on August 29, 2005

At one time, the United Methodist Church’s Disciplinary approach to alcohol consumption was singular — abstinence only. The church’s historical position has a strong rooting in the reality that alcohol abuse damages or destroys marriages and families, threatens jobs, leads to serious and often fatal automobile accidents, and can so consume an individual’s personality as to hinder or inhibit personal and spiritual growth.

Abstinence remains the first ideal, according to the most recent, 2004, Book of Discipline. However, in a growing awareness that many United Methodists choose to consume alcoholic beverages, the Book of Discipline now contains the recommending phrase, “….and with regard to those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as guide.” (Paragraph 162J, Social Principles.)

The Discipline does not soften its warning of the dangers of alcohol abuse, but seeks to provide some manner of spiritual guidance for those who elect to consume. Undoubtedly, some might claim that we have watered down our historical stance, and that this is some slippery slope. However, I think that the church has a duty to present solutions, not just rules. It became clear over the years that many United Methodists were going to drink regardless of what the Discipline recommended regarding abstinence. The current language, without overtly compromising the Church’s historical stance, now seems to recognize that “abstinence only” is not an effective policy for all and that a secondary policy of judicious use allows us to provide some guidance to those who reject abstinence. In that regard, perhaps, the Bible should be seen as a Living Testament that both upholds essential truths but also offers answers to people’s every day concerns.

The absolute prohibition on alcohol consumption did not come from John Wesley, as he was known to drink beer and wine on a responsible basis. He did seem to disapprove of spirituous (hard) liquors except as prescribed by a physician for medicinal purposes and he was certainly condemning of what he considered the exploitive rum trade. Rather, it was in the American temperance movement that American Methodists came to condemn all alcohol consumption. The ravages of alcohol abuse and the diversion of paychecks from family needs to imbibing were obviously valid concerns. No one can dispute that misuse of alcohol has had a devastating impact on society. The church helped push — perhaps in hindsight shortsightedly because of the bootlegging and corresponding crime that ensued — the now repealed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbade alcohol trade.

However, is alcohol consumption per se a matter to be regarded in all times and places as sinful? Is consumption of alcohol a matter central to the faith? Is it possible to drink responsibly and be a faithful Christian? Do you make a distinction between wine and beer/ale on the one hand and spirituous (hard)liquors on the other hand?

For United Methodist pastors, our Judicial Council has ruled that mere consumption of alcohol is not a chargeable offense, but that the burden nevetheless remains on the consuming pastor to demonstrate that such use is in keeping with “the ideals of excellence of mind, purity of body, and responsible social behavior.” (In reflection of the Council ruling, see Paragraph 311.3f, footnote 3.) At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I can say that an occasional cold brew or glass of wine may very well have preserved my sanity.

I might note that the British Methodist Church position on alcohol seems to be more geared toward misuse rather than outright promotion of abstinence. In the United Methodist Church, regardless of individual partaking, the serving of alcoholic beverages on church property, particularly with respect to church functions, is prohibited. Many Conferences have extended that understanding to be a prohibiton of serving alcohol at any church function, regardless of whether the function is held on church property or not. See Richard’s earlier related post “Methodists Taking to Drink?”

Whatever a Christian’s view on the use of alcohol, I would hope and pray that we could all agree on one thing and that is that any of us who do drink, even responsibly, should avoid consuming around those with a history of alcohol abuse or temptatation, for the cause of encouraging our brother or sister is far more important than the principle of our right or enjoyment.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }


Richard 08.29.05 at 11:07 am

Good post, Joel.

The total abstinence position is a very respectable one, but hard to justify on the basis of scripture alone. The image of wine in the Bible is overwhelmingly positive, and I have no difficulty in imagining Jesus and his disciples enjoying a pint of beer together had they been in a different time and place. As i’ve said before, for me the issue is how to address the binge-drinking culture and the misuse of alcohol. Of course, not everyone agrees with me!


DH 08.29.05 at 5:10 pm

Richard good point. I think on those who promote abstinence it is based on the new wine old wine thing and that new wine was actually grape juice that people hold to. However, I feel the issue is in the same category as Paul’s stance on “meat sacrificed to idols”. Paul thought it was okay. (I personally think it is not but I don’t divide on this because it is in the same category as Paul’s stance on “meat”) Also, it talks about those who eat shouldn’t be a stumbling block to those who don’t. Also, the Bible talks clearly about not being drunk. For me this goes beyond binge-drinking. If a person is “under the influence” I kind of feel that this is wrong. I also think that if a person doesn’t believe in drinking and is with a person who is drinking that the person who drinks should repect the person who doesn’t. Also, a Christians we must be a witness to the world. We must ask the question is my drinking going to “…cause people to stumble”.

I think that while drinking is not totally wrong (for my own self it is). That there are clear standards about the way we drink that the Bible makes clear. I hope you appreciated this insight as I did yours. :)


DH 08.29.05 at 5:10 pm

I personally feel being legally drunk is sin.


Joel 08.29.05 at 6:04 pm


I agree that abstinence is difficult to defend on Scripture alone, but so are both capital and corporal punishment bans, positions also supported by the UMC. That is one of my points on the authority of the Bible as a living Testament that looks beyond the letter of the Word and to the needs and challenges of the community. To me, that isn’t relativism as some might alllege, but application.

I have tremendous concerns about alcohol abuse, so I can appreciate those who “witness” to (against?) the problems of abuse by abstaining altogether. And further, some simply have no taste for alcohol, just as I have no taste for buttermilk.

However, I personally drink, in great moderation, not only beer and wine, but also enjoy a good Margarita, particularly with a Mexican dinner.

I fully support the chemical dependency programs sponsored by many individual Conferences as well as the call by General Conference to education and counseling programs and laws that hold people accountable for their actions and regulate the manner and time of sale of alcoholic beverages.


Being under the influence such that one cannot think or reason clearly, or substantially loses morally necessary inhibitions and the like is, I agree, a sin.

Because in the United States the threshold for what is legally impaired for driving has been lowered so much, as I think it should be, I don’t know that I would make an absolute correspondence with legal impairment for the purposes of operating a vehicle and being drunk so as to be a sin. For many years, the driving standard was .15, whereas now it is often .08. Better for the protection of innocents on the road. However, in the privacy of one’s home or in public where one is not the designated driver and is acting in a way that a reasonable person would consider responsibile, I don’t know that I would legalistically classify someone with a blood alcohol level of over .08 as sinning. Technically speaking, when someone has one drink, they are “under the influence” because studies have shown that virtiually any ingestion of alcohol affects brain function.

Again, I do not want to undermine in any way the serious nature of alcoholism or alcohol abuse and I greatly respect those who choose not to drink.

Many otherwise imbibing men abstain from alcohol during their wives’ pregnancies, and I think that is a nice touch of honoring a covenantal relationship.


John 08.30.05 at 1:10 am

A professor in college once told me that a statistical study concluded that the average American male over 13 in the US in the year 1800 drank about 1 quart of grain alchohol per day. This massive consumption was the result of high corn and wheat yields coupled with poor transportation networks (hence the distilling of grain into liquor for easier transport).

Alcoholism is a curse in my wife’s family. It has destroyed her father, his father before him, and his father before him. It has only affected the men, and thankfully, my father-in-law has only daughters. The disease stops here in this generation.

It affects us. If a minor problem occurs, Katherine anticipates that I will become enraged and literally tear up the house and furniture. “That’s what men do, right?” I’m re-educating her on the subject.


Joel 08.30.05 at 6:59 am


You’ve given a powerful witness and relational testimony with just a few short words. Thanks.


Will 08.30.05 at 2:33 pm

“….Statistics from this report, which were updated recently, indicate that drinking by college students aged 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths, 599,000 injuries, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.” http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/Parents/collegefactsheet.aspx

As a UMC pastor I abstain for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the death and destruction with which alcohol is assoicated. The quote above deals with a relatively small age group. The total picture is truly staggering(pun intended).

Assuming the statistic above are accurate, more young people will be injured, harmed or die in a one year period in the USA than soldiers in Iraq. However, no one will protest this.


DH 08.30.05 at 3:26 pm

Joel, I totally appreciate your post. I think I make a distinction between “under the influence” and drunk. I believe strongly that anything that anything that makes you hallucinate is sin (pharmakeia) if taken to the point that (pharmakeia) is achieved. I do think very strongly that being drunk is a sin. All I know is that Bible says that being drunk is sin. We must be sincere and pray about this strongly. Just because we “feel good” when we drink doesn’t mean it is a good thing. I would argue that we must allow the holy Spirit to reveal whether are actions are actually benefiting Christ or not. “Be not drunk with wine wherein is excess but be filled with the Holy Spirit”.


DH 08.30.05 at 3:29 pm

Joel, It is great to see your moderation in your use. It is a testament to me. I hope we can all realize as Christians the strong limitations that God set forth with this type of use. For me it is abstinence but I can understand the opposing view as long as one is not drunk. I think I gave all of the definitions from above. Great reaponse Joel. :)


Joel 08.30.05 at 4:37 pm


Again, I agree with the witnessing to abstinence. It should be noted, however, that some scholars or experts have claimed that raising the drinking age for campus youth in the U.S.A. has actually increased binge drinking rather than decreasing it. I read one such article recently and will reference it when I remember where I saw it.


DH 08.30.05 at 7:26 pm

Joel, for me I feel that the standard is the most important. Just because more people happen to use it in that age group doesn’t mean it is a problem with the law per se. Sounds like we found some common ground but on the fine tune details some seperation. I take great care for the standard than I do the results. An analogy would be Moses and the children of Israel. God through Moses had the standard but a super majority went against it. This didn’t mean the standard was wrong because the super majority didn’t follow the standard through Moses. I know this is a little conveluted but does that make sense? :) Bless ya in the Lord. :)

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